The Boston Celtics and What Greatness Looks Like

At the start of training camp, early last October, the Boston Celtics’ social-media team posted a video of Jaylen Brown, the team’s All-Star guard, practicing his dribble. In it, Brown, his back to the camera, pounds a few hard dribbles with his right hand, then shifts the ball to his left. The ball begins to stray. Brown hitches it back. Then the ball swings farther to the left, and Brown pulls it back too sharply; he has to step forward to corral it. He regains control for a few dribbles, but, when the clip cuts off, the ball is about to bounce out of the frame.

The video disappeared from the Celtics’ channels, but not before it was widely shared, often with unflattering commentary. Just weeks earlier, Brown had signed a contract for about three hundred million dollars, the largest in N.B.A. history. This was not a surprise; he was the first player to be eligible for so much money, partly on the basis of being named to a list of the league’s best players in the season prior. And he is an aggressive, dynamic scorer, plus a tenacious defender capable of guarding anyone. Still, there was the matter of that dribble. The last time Brown had played in an N.B.A. game, in the deciding contest of the Eastern Conference Finals, against the Miami Heat, he’d had eight turnovers, many of them mishaps while dribbling with his left hand.

The favored Celtics lost that game, and, with it, the series, to the underdog Heat, in a blowout. Never mind that the team’s best player, Jayson Tatum, had got injured just after the game began—the reasonable consensus was that the Celtics, who were playing in their fifth Eastern Conference Finals in the past seven years, should have beaten the Heat easily. The loss was an embarrassment; the inconsistent performances of Tatum in clutch situations were picked apart, over and over. The team’s rookie head coach, Joe Mazzulla, who had led the team to the second-best record in the conference, was criticized as not being ready for prime time. People questioned the fit between Brown and Tatum, who did not always complement each other’s strengths in quite the way that some of the league’s most famous duos did. Brown’s name popped up in trade rumors. In the end, Brad Stevens, who had coached Brown and Tatum when they arrived in the league before moving to the front office, signed Brown to the big contract—then traded half of the rest of the team’s rotation.

When the new season began, the Celtics played like one of the best teams in N.B.A. history. They had the highest-rated offense of all time, and a defense that was nearly as good. Their net rating, a statistical calculation of a team’s over-all performance, put this year’s Celtics alongside the league’s most legendary teams, including Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors at their peaks. Boston won multiple games by more than fifty points, something only two teams had done before. And yet many commentators, and even some of the team’s fans, seemed reluctant to accept this evidence. “The Celtics record (76-20) & point differential (+10.4) say they’re an all time team,” a popular sports talk-radio host tweeted recently, after the Celtics swept this year’s Eastern Conference Finals, against the Indiana Pacers. “The eye test says they are not close to that.” Why, when it comes to this team, do people see something different from what the results suggest? What do we think greatness should look like?

There are multiple answers to the first of those questions. But it has something to do, at least in part, with three-point shots. Not that long ago, three-pointers were seen, for most players, as a strategy of last resort. A team might employ a three-point specialist, but for everyone else they seemed like low-percentage shots. Then stats-minded analysts and teams realized that simply taking a lot of threes opened up the floor, by forcing defenses to spread out and cover more ground. Curry’s Warriors were the first team to build a dynasty with three-point shooting; they did so by employing two of the best three-point shooters of all time, in Curry and his fellow-guard Klay Thompson. The Houston Rockets also found sustained success by jacking up threes at unprecedented rates; now every team takes more threes than it did even just a few years ago. But no one takes them at the rate that these Celtics do. Nearly half the shots they attempt per game are threes.

This has been the engine of Boston’s high-octane offense. And yet some people find it maddening to see Tatum, a player of tremendous strength, court vision, and finesse in the mid-court and around the rim, pulling up early in a possession and letting fly a long shot, which, more often than not, he will miss. Missing, though, even for long stretches, is baked into the strategy. Threes are riskier, statistically speaking, than shots taken closer to the basket—a team’s three-point shooting percentage can vary dramatically from night to night. And the Celtics are prone to runs of cold shooting—as was most obvious during that 2023 series against the Heat, when they took a hundred and six three-point shots in the first three games and made only thirty-one of them, while the Heat hit theirs at an unusually high rate. When the shots weren’t falling, there seemed to be a kind of stubbornness about the team’s approach. But the team’s shooting can get hot just as quickly; in time, the math usually works out. When Boston lost a game to Miami in the first round this year, there was a lot of talk about the Celtics’ failure to adjust during the game. The Celtics won the next three games by twenty, fourteen, and thirty-four points, respectively.

The trades in the off-season allowed the Celtics to become even more aggressive about taking threes, which has opened up other opportunities for the offense. Having so much shooting potential across the floor gives the Celtics wide swaths of space to manipulate. And every member of the team’s starting five can not only sink the ball from deep but score at the rim. They can also pass and defend well—it is hard to imagine a more balanced team. The players talk about an ethic of sacrifice; the guard Jrue Holiday, acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks, took just ten shots a game during the regular season, compared with fifteen last year. (Tatum and Brown are also taking fewer shots.) Everyone does everything. This is apparently not in keeping with conventional notions of basketball greatness. The N.B.A. title is often won by the league’s best player, and winning is often credited to that player’s determination and killer instinct, particularly late in games. Jayson Tatum is maybe only (only!) the league’s sixth-best player, and Boston is typically at its best when he’s helping to orchestrate the team’s balanced attack, rather than taking over at the end of close games. His demeanor, deliberate and steady, tends to reflect that rational approach.

And so, every time the Celtics have wasted a big lead—and even sometimes when they have won with clinical precision—commentators have debated the team’s character. The coaches and players, meanwhile, have mostly shrugged, talking in even tones about resilience, and learning from mistakes. They finished the regular season with the best record in the league, fourteen games ahead of the Knicks, the second seed in the East. (The same gap separated the Knicks from the tenth-ranked team.) The general response was more admiration than awe.

When they blew through the Heat in the first round, the question became: how would they handle clutch situations? When they went on to win a string of close games, it became: how would they handle better competition? The more they won, the less they seemed to win. (Their path was certainly eased by injuries to some of their opponents’ best players, but they weren’t spared: Kristaps Porzingis, Boston’s starting center, has missed most of the post-season.) After Brown was awarded the Eastern Conference Finals M.V.P., and despite videos of Tatum appearing genuinely happy for his teammate’s success, talking heads on television shouted about rumors of tension between them. Many great teams talk, dubiously, about being underestimated. No one is underestimating these Celtics, but it’s hard to deny the sense that they’re not appreciated.

None of this seems to rankle the team much, perhaps because most of them have been here before. But steadiness can also be born from something other than experience. When the team’s guard Derrick White was mired in a shooting slump, in January, Mazzulla said, “We shouldn’t lose confidence. That’s a result-oriented approach, like, I don’t have confidence in myself.” Losses, he said, were “information.” Wins were sometimes better thought of as lessons, too. “I know it’s an unpopular thing to say,” Mazzulla said, and he was right. Where is the nobility in information? Where is the urgency?

Perhaps those are the wrong questions. Shortly before the Celtics completed their sweep of the Indiana Pacers, in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was announced that Bill Walton, the legendary center, had died, from cancer. Walton had been a larger-than-life figure, a versatile center who could score at will but seemed to see futility in playing only for himself. He understood the game as an organism. Walton won one championship with the Portland Trail Blazers and earned an M.V.P. award; when he was healthy, he was the best in the league. But he was rarely healthy. In 1985, his thirteenth season, he went to play for the Celtics.

That 1986 Celtics team, led by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, won the title. It’s generally regarded as Boston’s best team, and perhaps the one that played with the most beautiful style. Walton came off the bench. He had missed nine and a half seasons owing to injury in the course of his career, but, in Boston, he seemed rejuvenated, and won Sixth Man of the Year. He could not play at the level he’d reached before, so he did what was needed, and learned what he could.

He loved information. He took it in, spat it out. After I interviewed him for a story about Nikola Jokić, he continued to e-mail me little facts about Jokić that he remembered and overheard, sometimes with the instruction to “please verify.” He also talked a lot about joy. On the basketball court, that joy, for Walton, was to be found in selflessness, in a group of people pulling together. “One of the great aspects of growing up is the joy that you get, the happiness you get, from the success of others,” he told me. These Celtics, at their best, reflect something of that.

I have also found myself thinking about Walton’s unusually open acknowledgment of flaws—his own and others’—and how fixing or adapting to them is essential to a team’s success. Isn’t that a part of greatness, too? Perhaps the Celtics weren’t mistaken to post that video of Brown practicing his dribble. Maybe they should have left it up. ♦

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